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If the past year has taught us anything, it is that movie audiences want to see an onscreen world that better reflects our diverse society.
We’ve seen the slogans — #OscarsSoWhite, #TimesUp, #MeToo — and we’ve seen the results of the activism powering them. It’s no accident that some of the past year’s most notable hits have been stereotype-challenging, genre-busting films like Wonder Woman, Black Panther and Get Out.
And yet there is one underrepresented group that remains largely undiscussed and unchampioned: people with disabilities.
That may seem an odd thing to say when a movie featuring a mute lead character (The Shape of Water) won the Oscar for best picture and another movie featuring a 6-year-old deaf protagonist (The Silent Child) won an Academy Award for best live-action short.
But consider the facts. People with disabilities make up 20 percent of the population — that’s 54 million people — but appear onscreen only 2.7 percent of the time. An overwhelming number of the roles, upwards of 95 percent on television, are played by actors without disabilities. Hollywood does not lack for brilliant, talented actors with disabilities (think of R.J. Mitte who played Walt Jr. in Breaking Bad, or the deaf actor and model Nyle DiMarco, with his stigma-busting triumph in Dancing With the Stars), but since they are rarely if ever cast in nondisabled roles, they are effectively chasing just one-tenth of 1 percent of the available work.
The data tells us that 63 percent of the population is in some way connected to people with disabilities, yet onscreen we are just about invisible.
That’s not good for us or for audiences. For our industry, it’s flat-out unacceptable.
It’s not just about one side of the camera either. As a motion picture executive with profound hearing loss, I’m disconcerted by how few of my peers make it into the industry. To still be described as a “disability pioneer” after two decades in Hollywood feels almost like a rebuke.
Now it’s time for us to push back — to have our #UsToo moment. Next week, the disability rights group RespectAbility will be launching a toolkit to educate industry professionals, and the reporters who cover them, on some of the myths that need puncturing and the cultural shift that needs to take place to give actors and executives with disabilities their due.
The group also will be announcing a new partnership with Hollywood, Health & Society, a project of the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg.
We have plenty of other ideas besides: We too want to take up Frances McDormand’s call to arms for inclusion riders so stars can use their leverage with executives, producers, directors, agents and casting directors to advance the cause of all underrepresented groups.
We are fortunate, as we launch this effort, to have several remarkable films to build on featuring performances by actors with disabilities. Among them are The Silent Child, showcasing the talents of 6-year-old Maisie Sly, who uses British sign language; Baby Driver, with a moving performance by the African-American deaf actor C.J. Jones; and Wonderstruck in which deaf newcomer Millicent Simmonds astonished critics and audiences with a magnificent, visually expressive performance.
As a producer, I am frequently reminded of how many amazing stories there are yet to be told, performances to be seen and perspectives to be gained from people with disabilities, and how few opportunities exist for them.
The industry also needs to do better at getting the details right. The makers of both Wonderstruck and The Shape of Water chose to cast non-signing actors to perform ASL dialogue. That meant weeks if not months of preparation with paid ASL consults, with results that, to those of us in the know, came across as two-dimensional and flat.
And that’s a great pity because sign language has tremendous cinematic properties, with unique and complex forms of inflection, intonation and pitch that can take years to master but can amplify and deepen performances in ways accessible to all audiences.
Why not simply hire experienced deaf actors fluent in ASL and the art of nonverbal communication, perhaps from the renowned Deaf West Theatre, which has produced countless award-winning performances? Why take on the expense, manpower, preparation and time when a superior outcome can be accomplished with an authentic performance from a single actor?
In other words, we don’t just need diversity in casting; we need diversity in creative ideas too. It’s in nobody’s interest to produce a painful caricature like Mickey Rooney’s notorious turn as the Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. On the contrary, an industry that produces extraordinary and authentic stories about characters with disabilities can only become richer, in all senses of the word.
Delbert Whetter is an executive with Exodus Film Group and a board member of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. His latest project is a feature film about champion athletes at the Oregon School for the Deaf.
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